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Stuff [Jul. 10th, 2012|09:17 pm]
Scott
One of my friends recently mentioned ey wants to name eir first son "Tyrion", after Tyrion Lannister.

I know baby names are a minefield. Some people say you're hopelessly boring if you name your kid 'John' or 'Elizabeth' or any other name shared by ten million people. Other people warn against names that give off an immediate "old geezer" vibe like 'Melvin' or 'Ethel'. And there seems to be a huge contingent of people who hate newer names like 'Skyler' and 'Jayden'.

(I actually think both 'Skyler' and 'Jayden' are quite pretty. On the other hand, I Googled them to make sure I was spelling them right and ended up with Facebook pages for a bunch of Skyler Jaydens and Jayden Skylers. Sorry, that's going too far.)

A lot of philosophers kind of awkwardly end up believing that there's no objective morality and all truth is culturally relative, but also that racism is evil. I have that same kind of problem with names. Obviously what makes a good baby name is subjective and you can never please everyone. But you're still a bad person if you name your child Latrine.

I think all right-thinking people would agree on the following three principles:

1. Don't name your kid after something with strong negative connotations, like 'Latrine'.

2. Don't name your kid something that will get em teased. This is a obviously a judgment call; my mother is named Ellyn and had to put up with her brothers calling her "Smellyn" while she was growing up. This level of teasing probably can't be avoided. Other names seem to be asking for it; Bertha, Dorcas, or, God forbid, Gaylord. One must also consider how different names come together. My grandmother's first and middle names are Elda Lee, which is kind of funny now that she's a grandmother but must have been annoying as a child. I have heard rumors of a girl named Jacquelyn Hyde, which is just awful.

3. Don't name your kid something that they will be forever explaining or correcting. My mother is named Ellyn, but it might as well be "Ellynwithawhy", because that's how she has to introduce herself to anyone who's going to write her name or put it into a computer. I know several Irish people named Niamh, and it's a beautiful name with a rich mythology around it, but as an American I would never name my daughter that because she'd constantly have to put up with people calling her Nee-yam-huh (it's properly pronounced 'Neev').

To these I would add a more controversial fourth rule, the Anti-Tyrion Principle:

4. Don't name your kid after a single obvious reference.

I'm usually a utilitarian, but here I strongly endorse the deontologist principle of "first, do no harm". A name like 'John' that has no particular strong associations does no harm. No one will notice it or even think about it more than is necessary to call John to dinner. Any name that obviously focuses the attention on a single reference has the following downsides:

First, it focuses the attention. When I introduce myself to someone, they're focused on me and what I'm doing. If I'm nice to someone, they'll remember me as that guy who was nice to them. If I wear a funny t-shirt, they'll remember me as that guy in the funny t-shirt. No matter what Tyrion says or does, he'll always be "that guy who's named Tyrion". If he wants to blend into the crowd, he hasn't a prayer. If he wants to be noticed for his intellect, or his compassion, or his skill at basketball, at best he can hope to be "That guy who's named Tyrion and incidentally did you know he's pretty good at basketball?"

Second, it provides an obvious standard for comparison. Is Tyrion noticeably short? Everyone will remark on this and giggle. Is Tyrion noticeably tall? Everyone will remark on that too, and giggle. After the two millionth time that happens, Tyrion will want to kill everyone he meets. And if he says that, people will answer "Haha, guess I'll lock the door when I'm sitting on the toilet", and that will just make him angrier.

Third, it violates all of the first three rules simultaneously. Do you think, maybe, a cowardly sex-obsessed dwarf might have negative connotations to some people? Might fourth-graders want to tease him? (the answer to this question is always 'yes'). Is he going to be constantly explaining to anyone not familiar with Game of Thrones, which in forty years will probably be everyone, "No, it's Tyrion, with a 'y'".

Fourth and most important, it prevents him from becoming his own person. His life is always going to be an advertisement of what his parents liked. If he doesn't like fantasy books, or if he studies Nietzsche and takes on an ethical code stressing strength over cleverness, or if he becomes deeply religious and obsessed with sexual continence, well, tough for him. Maybe he can name his own kid Chastity Zarathustra or something, and repeat the cycle.

Because I have a relatively normal name, I can identify with whoever I want. When I was super into classics, I liked having the middle name "Alexander" because it reminded me of Alexander the Great (it also turned out useful when I got arrested in Macedonia, but that's another story). When I was very interested in Irish culture, it was pretty neat having the name "Scott", because the Irish were (confusingly!) called the Scots in classical times. But when there's a Scott I don't identify with at all, it's not like I'm forced to identify with him, or like he's the only Scott in town.

I can't stress this last point enough. I like Tyrion. You probably like Tyrion. But then again seventeen couples have already named their children Renesmee, probably because they and everyone they knew liked Twilight and who could possibly object to such a beautiful name? But I would hate to be named Renesmee (to be fair, it would be slightly more embarrassing for me because I'm a guy, but only slightly). If you think it's any harder to object to a cowardly sex-obsessed dwarf than to a baby half-vampire, you're stuck in Typical Mind Fallacy territory.

And yes, the kid could always go by his middle name or by a nickname ("Ty" is cool, although Ty Cobb was kind of super racist, and there's the whole Beanie Babies thing). But I know at least two people who have non-legally changed their names, and although it's eventually worked out for them, there's always a bit of awkwardness. All their official correspondence goes to a different name than their friends know them by, they constantly have to correct teachers (the first day of every school year in California usually involved at least five exchanges of the sort "Is there a Xiu Lin in this class?" "Yes, but I go by Susy") and although people are pretty understanding with Asian names, anything less prosaic will lead to awkward conversations ("Your name is Bob? How come my printout says Thaddeus? Did you change your name? Why? That's really interesting, Thadd...I mean Bob!"). It's not like it will scar them for life or anything, but still, who needs the aggravation?

I feel like if you feel something so strongly you've got to name your child after it, stick it in the middle name. That's got to be why our society continues having a hidden name that nobody ever uses. I'm considering giving my firstborn son (although at this point, speculating that I will have children seems a bit optimistic) the middle name "Imriel", and if he never wants to use it, fine. But I wouldn't dream of using it as a first name (okay, fine. Dream, yes. Go through with it, no.)

In general, I consider the Institute for Naming Children Humanely to be a pretty good resource, albeit one that errs on the side of being overly conservative.
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Comments:
From: vnesov
2012-07-11 02:14 am (UTC)
There is also the consideration of a name being Google Stupid. "John Smith" is prototypically Google Stupid: it gets 30 million hits, there are a hundred thousand scholarly papers written by people named "John Smith", and the name's Wikipedia disambiguation page is several screens long. It is impossible to find people with such names on the Internet, or give credit to them, without having to invent some additional identifying feature that will probably fail to become a focal point (so you won't know what feature to look for).

I think taking away this possibility of being identified is worse than the principles 2 and 3 combined (the obvious cure is to pick a rare name, hopefully a normal-sounding rare name with unambiguous spelling).
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-07-11 02:53 am (UTC)
I actually prefer not to be easily-look-up-able; I got in a small bit of trouble a few years ago and was terrified for a while that future employers would notice. I also have some strange hobbies (roleplaying nobility of fictional countries) that I'd prefer people meeting me for the first time not immediately know about. Not to mention I hang out with people who tend to discuss unpopular ideas like infanticide or genetic basis for between-race IQ differences.

Hiding my real name does some of the work, but I wasn't as good about that in the past as I should have been, and being a John Smith would take a load off my shoulders for sure.
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[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2012-07-12 07:34 pm (UTC)
I remember writing about how baby names should be unique: http://www.gwern.net/Notes#the-advantage-of-an-uncommon-name

I can't say it occurred to me to term common names as being 'Google Stupid', but it certainly is a memorable term!
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